In The Littlest Colonel (1935; dir. David Butler) the border state of Kentucky is the Deep South. A white columned plantation house, an elderly colonel who refuses to accept defeat by the North, loyal black servants indistinguishable from slaves, courtly manners, Southern belles. The South is a setting for this tale of how a winning little girl brings reconciliation between an estranged father and daughter. The film also serves as a vehicle for the 1930s child star Shirley Temple. Her acting never varied much from one film to the next, except that over the decade she got older.
The North-South division is the crux of the event that tears father and daughter apart. The colonel wants her to marry a gentleman from the south. She plans to marry a northerner, aptly named Jack Sherman. Father and daughter are resolutely stubborn. She leaves with her fiancé and her father tells her never to enter the house again.
The strongest figure in the film is Lionel Barrymore, who plays old Colonel Lloyd. He struts and huffs and puffs and overacts and holds your attention. There are entertaining moments between the house servants and Temple, entertaining within the narrowly defined lives of the servants. Bill Robinson plays the head house servant, Walker. He knows and has opinions about everything going on in the house, but he usually holds his tongue. (This in is a stereotype—the knowing, avuncular house servant who doesn’t say what he thinks). He and Temple perform two dance numbers together, one on the inner stairs of the colonel’s house, another in a barn where he looks after horses. Robinson was a wonderful dancer, as the scene on the stairs makes clear. Hattie McDaniel appears in her stock role as personal servant, or Mammy, to Shirley Temple’s character. McDaniel played these parts well—she was human and believable despite the constraints of her roles.
The characters played by McDaniel and Robinson are important secondary roles, but none of the black characters in the film ever wanders outside the prescribed social boundaries. Nor would they in a film like this, that exists only to tell a story, to broadcast the talents of its child star, that isn’t interested in subverting or questioning or satirizing. The Littlest Colonel accepts the conventions of the Old South without question.
Other black characters in the film, in particular two children, and one house servant, provide comic relief. Children can be funny without much effort, of course. These two children—a little boy and an older girl--play roles secondary to Temple’s. They follow her around, obey her commands, and make comic statements and comic actions. The little boy can do little more than moan and groan and utter monosyllables. This film offers further confirmation of the fact that African Americans in the 1930s had virtually no choice of roles beyond those involving servitude and slavery and low comedy. I wouldn’t characterize the portrayal of black characters in this film as viciously racist, but instead as conventionally racist. Given the decade, that’s about what one could expect from an A-list film written, directed, and produced by whites for a mostly white audience.
The film shows whites and especially blacks as accepting of their positions in life, as masters and servants. It purveys the notion that within this range of acceptance blacks and whites lived comfortably together in a nurturing community, helping and supporting one another when circumstances called for it. It’s important to remember that the story takes place in the 1880s, long after the end of the Civil War, when the former slaves could have left the plantation for better opportunities. That they have remained with the colonel simply reflects the golden gaze of Thomas Nelson Page apologetics that underlies this film’s conception of historical reality.
I’m always a sucker for films that show reconciliation between parents and children. In this one there’s no question, from the earliest scene in which they argue, that reconciliation will come for the colonel and his daughter. What gives the film interest, beyond Barrymore’s wonderful overacting and Temple’s carefully managed talents and the merits of other actors is the question of when that moment will occur. It comes not a moment too soon. And then, except for a final scene in which all the characters, black and white, enjoy a barbecue together, a scene filmed in color (in contrast to the rest of this black and white film), the affair is over.